Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy, revisited

In an interesting post over at, Steven Padnick writes in defense of "red matter":
Red matter is... the stuff that explains the science fiction in your story. Or, rather, the stuff that refuses to explain anything and just excuses the science fiction in your story. A single source origin story for everything impossible that you want to include, no matter how disparate and bizarre.
This premise is certainly thought-provoking, but is made even more intriguing by a later paragraph in the post:
But most science fiction isn’t really about the how. Most is about why we want the impossible to happen, and what the consequences are if it does. Wells, and Orwell, and Bradbury, and L’Engle used the impossible to comment on society, and government, and family, and love, and used only the barest explanation of how any of this was done.
Comments essentially raised the same eyebrows that I did: The moment there's an unexplained "scientific" tool to wash away any of the unbelievable occurrences, the story mostly moves from the "because it's the future, dammit" realm to "because it's magic, dammit" - to fantasy, essentially. It doesn't help that one of Padnick's leading examples is actually from a fantasy TV series...

Padnick isn't wrong that science-fiction deals with much bigger pictures than simple spaceships shooting at each other. Like most literature, sci-fi often uses the flexibility of its setting and its imagined future to drive home specific points about society, humankind, existence, etc. It's the approach towards sci-fi as something much more akin to fantasy that has me bemused. It reminds me of N. K. Jemisin's recent argument against magic systems because that essentially turns the story into sci-fi, except... backwards.

On the one hand, I believe in blurring genre definitions. I don't think there's anything wrong with fantasy and science appearing in the same work of fiction, I don't mind fantasy having scientific structures, and I really can't see anything wrong with having very out-there and scientifically unlikely sci-fi. On the other hand, I think that science fiction as a genre is rather clearly defined as its mysteries being explained by science. You can have a made-up particle that explains away your problems, but it still needs to be scientific, if not outright science. If your "red matter" falls apart under the microscope, then the book isn't really sci-fi - it's futuristic fantasy.

The truth is that once we accept genre-blurring, all of this is irrelevant. But as long as we have defined genres such as science-fiction and its (distant) cousin fantasy, there do need to be distinctions. And just because something takes place in outer space doesn't mean it's necessarily sci-fi. As one of my favorite examples, I happen to think Dune, for all its status as a sci-fi classic, is actually pure fantasy*. So I get what Padnick is trying to say, but for now, I must politely disagree and turn my head away from any kind of "red matter".

* But don't tell my brother. He "doesn't like fantasy", yet he loved Dune. I wouldn't want to ruin his innocence.


  1. I don't mind talking about things in terms of science fiction and fantasy if someone feels most comfortable that way...but I mostly prefer the more general idea of "speculative fiction." To me, the sci-fi and fantasy labels are mostly for marketing purposes, but I'm less interested in rigid boundaries, and more interested in really free-flowing possibility that crosses from one side of the spectrum to the other. Makes it harder to shelve and categorize for bookstores and even for readers to search more of what they I guess it's a double-edged sword.

    I think Jemesin's argument is funny, and interesting.

  2. I agree that nowadays, many books are hard to categorize succinctly. And working in a bookstore, it's an issue that makes shelving very interesting. Luckily, being an independent with a great reputation and knowledgeable staff, we can steer readers in the right direction when they are confused or want a recommendation because the blurbs on the books are no help whatsoever. And for those that are avid fans of Science Fiction and of Fantasy hate...really hate it when you use the term SciFi and don't always like it that our section is not separated between the two. But as was noted, it can be hard and we just don't have the space to break things down to those two genres as well as all their sub-genres.


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam. Sorry!